France has a growing middle class. The United States has a shrinking middle class.
I realize that Americans are reluctant to learn from other countries (most prominent example: healthcare, where we insist on spending twice as much for much poorer results, because hey! we’re Amurica and we know best about everything…), but we really could learn a lot if we were so inclined.
According to the Washington Spectator (link unavailable), America’s middle class has dropped from 60% of all households in the 1980s to 50% in the mid 2010s. Meanwhile, the French middle class rose from 60% to 68%.
The poverty rate for U.S. children in two-parent families in 2010 was 13.7%; in France, it was 8.2%. (That was for children in two-parent families. For all American children, the child poverty rate is 21%; in France, it is 5.7%. As the Spectator points out, the damaging effects of growing up poor are well-documented and socially undesirable.
Why the difference? What does France do right that we don’t?
Although the article fails to mention it, that health care system I referenced is a huge asset to French families, especially families with children. Just knowing that an unexpected illness won’t wipe you out is a big stress reliever, as is the knowledge that you can take a sick child to the doctor without the visit making you late with the rent.
Although the article doesn’t mention health care, it does focus on three other aspects of French social policy that are very different from ours, and that the author finds particularly important: paid parental leave, affordable child care and the French tax system.
In France, paid family leave replaces 100% of the average wages earned by women in the three months following birth or adoption. Eight weeks of paid leave are mandatory, although many businesses offer more. The U.S., in contrast, is the only developed nation that does not have a national paid leave program; as a result, some 25% of new mothers return to work within ten days of giving birth. (It hurts even to type that statistic; I remember how long it took me to feel up to par after childbirth!)
The French child-care system is even more impressive to someone like me, who struggled to find adequate childcare despite having the financial wherewithal to pay for it. France has creches–childcare centers for infants and toddlers under 3–and part-time centers that operate both before and after school. There are other centers that open on days when school is out, and during summer vacations. And all of them are subsidized by the French government. The cost to a family is approximately $1.25 per hour per child.
In the U.S., the after-tax cost of childcare is equal to 38% of average U.S. wages, one of the things that makes parenting an expensive proposition and is a disincentive to women with children entering the workforce.
Finally, French families with children are taxed at a lower rate than families without children. The disparity in tax rates, the maternal leave policy and the generous subsidies for comprehensive child care are all justified by the French belief that children are an investment in the future of the nation.
Clearly, American policymakers don’t see it that way.